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Court Approves Pregnancy Discrimination Action Under FEHA Even After Exhaustion of Required PDLL Leave

In a case of first impression, the Court of Appeal (Second District) found that an employee who has exhausted all permissible leave available under the Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDLL), may nevertheless state a cause of action for discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  (Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., 2013 Cal. App. LEXIS 131 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist. Feb. 21, 2013).)

Plaintiff Ana Sanchez was diagnosed early in her first trimester with a high-risk pregnancy, requiring bedrest through her delivery date.  Sanchez requested and was granted a temporary leave of absence.  Sanchez proceeded to exhaust all of her vacation time in addition to the time provided under the PDLL (for a total of more than 19 weeks of leave).  When that leave ran out, however, she still had more than three months before her scheduled delivery date.  Because she was unable to return to work when she ran out of leave, Swissport fired her.

After Sanchez sued, alleging her firing was discriminatory under FEHA, the trial court granted Swissport’s demurrer, agreeing with the employer’s assertion that “because it had provided [Sanchez] with all of the leave mandated by the PDLL and the CFRA, it necessarily had satisfied all of its obligations under the FEHA.”  On appeal, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that the protections of the PDLL are separate and independent from those provided under FEHA—“the plain language of the PDLL . . . makes clear that its remedies augment, rather than supplant, those set forth elsewhere in the FEHA.”  (Sanchez, 2013 Cal. App. LEXIS 131, *11 (emphasis in original).) 

Accordingly, an employer may not fulfill its obligations under FEHA simply by providing the leave required by the PDLL.  An employee who has exhausted all of her PDLL leave remains entitled to the protections of FEHA, specifically the requirement that employers grant reasonable accommodations (such as, as expressly noted in Sanchez, an extended leave) so long as such accommodations do not impose an undue hardship on the employer.

PRACTICE TIP: A public employer considering termination of an employee following the exhaustion of the employee’s PDLL leave should first consider whether it has also completed its obligation to offer a reasonable accommodation under FEHA.